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The Magnificent Montagna Symposia on the Biology of the Skin

      The mid-nineteenth century was a time of great excitement and high expectations in ermatology, especially for the research segment. The Society for Investigative Dermatology had een formed a decade earlier, on the heels of the creation of the National Institutes of Health. The morphologic, descriptive, didactic dermatology, dominated by the European masters for enturies, was giving way to the pursuit of investigative, experimental dermatology and the new era of neodermatology.
      Enter William Montagna, an Italian immigrant, a near-genius polymorph, a professor of Biology (are there any biologists left?) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who, while teaching ornithology and anatomy, had published some articles on the eccrine skin gland of humans. His captivating lectures on that subject came to the attention of nearby dermatologists. Presto – the Symposium on the Biology of Skin was born.
      Young eastern-seaboard dermatologists with an investigative bent, most of whom would become major players in the field, were enthralled by Montagna's teachings and writings, and flocked to the first meetings, called at that time the Brown Symposia. Later the name changed to the Oregon Symposia when Montagna moved to Oregon, and finally it was enshrined forever as the Montagna Symposium on the Biology of Skin, held annually at the lovely Salishan Lodge on the Oregon coast. The Brown Symposia were created, organized and funded by one ingenious scholar, William Montagna, who then perforce could shape the programs according to his vision. He determined that each meeting would have a simple theme that would be covered in depth and published in book form. He predicted that they would become classics, and so they are, precious heirlooms of a fascinating, innovative period. He was a commanding figure whose approval was universally sought. This enabled him to ferret out the names of authorities everywhere in the world, and no one could refuse an invitation to speak! Thus was developed the international character of each Symposium, now a meeting ground for the best and brightest minds in the world of cutaneous research.
      While the first meetings were focused on a single structure – for example, sebaceous glands, hair, eccrine or apocrine glands – Montagna quickly recognized that the tremendous advances being made in investigative dermatology required expanded coverage of more comprehensive, rapidly developing fields, such as immunology, aging, physiology, pigmentation and so on, all pretty much in an embryonic form in those days. Montagna was also a prolific writer. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of his ground-breaking text The Structure and Function of Skin on a generation of young academic dermatologists. Many think Montagna was a dermatologist. You could say he was a de facto dermatologist, but he was in fact a Ph.D. biologist.
      Today, when symposia in all specialties are proliferating faster than rabbits, none can match the singular educational features of the Montagna Symposium, an absolutely unique institution that brooks no peer. Montagna was also a scholar with a deep understanding of history. I think he fashioned the Symposium according to the codas of the Greeks. They defined a symposium as a convivial meeting for eating, drinking and discussion of intellectual topics.
      No one can imagine a more salutary setting than Salishan for these visceral and intellectual enjoyments for creative scientists from all over the world. The topics of discussion now range over the entire spectrum of cutting edge research on the most fundamental questions of cutaneous biology.
      Attending the Montagna Symposium is the fastest way to stay abreast of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. As Montagna famously used to say at the end of every Symposium, “Godspeed”. He saw that we were racing breathlessly toward a greater understanding of that most complex and fascinating structure, the skin. He foresaw the importance of translational research, knowing that what happened at Salishan would have an impact on the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of all the vast number of dermatologic diseases.
      If you are a serious investigator and you miss attending or reading the proceedings published in the Journal for three years in a row, you will never catch up!